You are here

Referral to Privileges and Conduct Committee

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 7 September 2023

Tags: Privileges Committee, Misleading Parliament

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, if this fails the 'reasonable' test, one wonders why we have Standing Orders in the first place. It is clearly the case that the minister has failed to appropriately respond to an order of the House. The Premier has made the weakest of weak cases by saying the minister was under time pressure, and that very short notice was given. He just said then there was limited time available to the minister.

The point is, Mr Barnett has been in charge of this project ever since he became the Energy minister. For years and years now he has had the machinery of government to provide all the information he needs, and that Tasmanians need, to keep us abreast of what is happening with the biggest decision, the biggest resourcing infrastructure spend, Tasmania has ever embarked upon or considered embarking upon.

The idea that information was available in the Budget papers two months beforehand, but when parliament ordered an updated estimate, the minister did not have time to provide that, at the same time, as he has told us, that he was in the middle of a procurement process, where surely all the information should have been absolutely clearly stated to him as a minister, just does not stack up.

This is not a vote of no confidence in the minister - although he is heading that way, the way he is behaving. This is about sending him to the Privileges committee so that he fronts to a committee and explains his behaviour.

As it stands, an order of the House was made by a majority decision of members that Tasmanians have a right to know what the latest cost estimates are for the Marinus link, North West Transmission Developments and the Battery of the Nation projects. That order was made on 15 August, and he had until the next day to provide that material to parliament.

Let us be clear about this: this is a process that has been in train for years and years. Marinus Link is an entity that has been created with a bunch of very well-paid people sitting there with substantial access to government taxpayer-funded resources to do this work.

The idea that the minister could not update the cost estimates that he provided in the Budget two months before, that he could not provide an update to the House - at the same time as he was apparently negotiating procurement as part of that project - is either shocking, or unbelievable. I do not believe it. The truth is, he did not want to tell Tasmanians what was going on. Three days before the House made an order, he had written to the Prime Minister, outlining to the Prime Minister and minister Bowen that the project costs of the Marinus Link project had increased materially, and that further cost increases were likely. He was obviously aware that the costs had increased materially, because he had written to the Prime Minister three days before and told the Prime Minister that.

So, if he knew they had increased materially, he knew what they had increased to. Let us not pretend he did not have the information at hand, as the Premier is trying to have us believe. The fact is the minister knew the answer, and he had it available to give to the House, but he chose not to do it. The reason he chose not to was because it would be embarrassing to the Government.

The reason he gave us was a whole lot of hocus pocus about 'commercial in confidence'. He misled the House in misrepresenting the statement of Mr Gill, the chairman of Marinus Link, who did not give him any cover for providing a cost estimate on Marinus Link, a boundary estimate of the expected costs that Tasmanians will pay for. He did not give him that cover, so Roger Gill wrote to the minister to provide advice on how he should respond to the order of the House and said:

By tabling commercially sensitive information it would compromise contractual negotiations and risk breach of our legal and confidentiality obligations.

That is not what the House asked for; we did not ask for that material. If we had done that we would be having a different conversation. What we asked for in the motion was to provide the latest cost estimates so we can substantiate the reality that he had that information available because he had just written to the Prime Minister and told him the cost of Marinus Link had blown out. He had provided a cost estimate in the Budget and during budget preparations and when the Budget was printed there was a procurement process under way. He was comfortable telling Tasmanians what that cost estimate boundary was then but refused to tell the House later.

We believe that is because he did not want to have the proper scrutiny by the House that we can only do here outside of the sorts of media releases and backgrounding that the Government is doing of journalists at the moment. It is pretty clear that there was a lot of desperate conversations that were had by the Government's media office with journalists giving them information about the increased price of Marinus Link, $5.5 billion, which is what the Greens and other members in this place were also hearing. You would have to ask why would the Government media office want to background journalists about that price? When the minister is not able to come in here and tell us that, how come they were happy to background journalists and give them a number of $5.5 billion?

Is it because it is actually much more than $5.5 billion? Is it actually more like $7 billion or $8 billion? Many people observing this who are involved in renewables financing think that is a more credible amount for the Marinus Link proposal and the North West Transmission Developments; it could be.

What we have ended up with is a minister who has called the House's order reckless, shameful, reprehensible and contrary to legal advice. Well, I call bull. There was no breach of contracts. There was no breach of nondisclosure principles in the order that the House gave. There was a breach on the minister's part to uphold the Standing Orders and provide the House with the documents we required. What the Government does is hide. This is the second major example in the last six months of the Liberals using cabinet-in-confidence and now commercial-in-confidence as the opportunity to hide information from Tasmanians.

People are rightly outraged at the idea of spending a likely $1.5 billion on a stadium that we do not need and that we should not be spending money on, but they would be even more outraged if they could understand the many billions of dollars which are going to end up on Tasmanian power consumers' debt books for decades to come. That is what we are trying to get to the bottom of and that is why we are so concerned that the minister did not provide the information that parliament has ordered.

One of the letters minister Barnett did table on 8 August was the one I referred to from Prime Minister Albanese and minister Bowen, the federal Energy minister. In that letter sent to the federal ministers to ask for their assistance, it had the current cost of Marinus Link redacted, but it also had the cost at the time that the state and federal governments signed their letter of intent with Tasmania in October 2022 and that was also redacted.

The media release at the time of the original federal-state deal in October last year did not cite a cost, but the state Budget papers when they were released this year referenced $6.4 billion for Marinus, Battery of the Nation and related projects. Minister Barnett told me in Estimates after a question I asked that the price would be $3.8 billion for two Marinus cables so we have to ask what the minister was trying to hide by redacting the figure about the cost when the original deal with the federal government was signed in October last year. If the figure in the letter was what is publicly now known as the cost of $3.1 billion to $3.8 billion, which is what the Jacobs report said last year in 2021, then there would not be any need to redact it, but perhaps the Government already knew the true cost had increased in October last year and that the redacted figure would rightly be far higher than $3.8 billion.

If that is the case, if they are hiding the price that they signed us up to in October last year by redacting it in the letter that was tabled, you have to ask why the Budget did not reflect that updated cost. Was it because when the Budget was printed it was also very obvious that it would be far more than $3.1 billion to $3.8 billion? That seems the most likely conclusion.

The minister has been not just slippery in this instance and defying an order of the House, but in all likelihood, we think, has distorted the truth for Tasmanians in what is written in the Budget papers, otherwise the minister should table an unredacted copy of the letter that he wrote to the Prime Minister and minister Bowen on 12 July this year.

The issue here, of course, is not just the cost and the announcement that was made last weekend. The costs of Marinus Link and the North West Transmission Developments and the impact on Tasmanian electricity consumers will be examined by the Australian Electricity Regulator and will form part of the pricing determination processes that will flow through to Tasmanians in power bills. That is the point the Greens are most concerned about, and it is the cost not just of the initial phase of 20 per cent, which is what all the media energy and ministerial statement is focused on, the equity contribution from Tasmania, Victoria and federal governments, Tasmania's part is 17.7 per cent. The balance that will be left after the 20 per cent will be loan funds and a concessional loan is being discussed with the federal government but it is unlikely that Tasmania itself will borrow the 80 per cent and the borrowings are likely to be Marinus Link Pty Ltd. Marinus Link Pty Ltd is two states and a federal entity and that is who will borrow the 80 per cent of money. The cost of that debt, 80 per cent of whatever the price of one cable for Marinus Link will be - at the moment estimated to be $3.8 billion - $2.4 billion will be paid for through a loan that will be paid off over time by what consumers use and the split, the cost allocation methodology, between Victoria and Tasmania. But if there is a shortfall in paying off the debt and the money that comes to that entity from consumer use of electricity, who will pay for the remaining amount of money? Will the Tasmanian Government also be required to chip into that extra payment of the debt?

Whether or not there is a shortfall will depend entirely on how much the Australian Energy Regulator determines can be recovered from consumers. The question then is how that will be split. Can the minister tell Tasmanians whether it is going to be 15 per cent Tasmania, 85 per cent Victoria? I do not understand why, if I were premier of Victoria, I would agree to my residents paying for 85 per cent of the Marinus Link cable. That does not make any sense. The arrangement between states has always been fifty-fifty. If a cable goes from one state to another, the cost allocation for consumers to pay off the debt for that cable is 50 per cent from one state and 50 per cent from the other. That is standard in the National Electricity Market.

The minister is expecting us to believe that he has negotiated a new deal, a separate deal, a deal that no other state has been able to negotiate, which could potentially set a standard. I understand there has been a lot of pushback on this from the energy ministers' meetings. It has not been a view that has been wholly supported by other states.

The minister has said what he would like Tasmanians to pay - 15 per cent. He can talk about what he would like all he likes but the question is what has been signed, what has actually been agreed to? If I am Dan Andrews, I am not going to sign up to Victorians paying 85 per cent for a cable from Tasmania to Victoria when the KerangLink is what they are putting all their effort into. They want the KerangLink cable to be built; they are going hard on battery storage. If their consumers are going to pay for Marinus Link, why would they sign up to more than 50 per cent?

That 80 per cent of the total price, that $2.4 billion, will have to be paid for by consumers. It will mean an increase in electricity prices. The minister has made that clear in his ministerial statement. He says on page 4:

The Australian Energy Regulator will set the maximum allowable return for the project, including the final cost to complete the project, the cost of debt, return on equity, depreciation of the asset and other factors. The maximum allowable revenue recovered from customers through electricity bills and transmission costs represent approximately 40 per cent of a typical Tasmanian customer's electricity bill.

Well, hello. What that means is there is going to be $2.4 billion of the cost of the Marinus Link, one single cable of Marinus Link, and that will be split between Victorian and Tasmanian customers. What Tasmanians pay for transmission costs at the moment is 40 per cent of a typical bill. Of course that is going to go up. It is not going to go up for one or two years but for decades, until the Marinus Link has been paid for.

As well as that cost, we are concerned that the Liberals are walking the state, and people who are paying for this through power bills, into an extra future debt through the new Basslink charges likely to be coming our way. The Basslink has been purchased by a new company and they have made an application the Australian Energy Regulator to become a regulated asset. We understand the Tasmanian Government, the minister, has assured the new owners that his Government will back Basslink becoming a regulated asset. What that means is that TasNetworks can and will charge us more in our power bills to pay for it. So, we have extra costs coming our way through Basslink and extra costs coming our way through Marinus Link. We have additional north west transmission line costs which will involve borrowing of $1 billion, which is what the ministerial statement has signalled, as well as borrowings for Tarraleah, Cethana and whatever else Hydro builds.

We want to know what the Liberals are walking Tasmanians into. We want to have all the information. Tasmanians deserve to have all the information. These are enormous decisions and they are being hidden by the fact that they will be spread out across decades in our power bills. They will not sit on the state books. The $100 million-plus that we pay into the equity might sit somewhere on the state budget. But the $2.4 billion for the majority of the Marinus Link build, the whole of the costs if Basslink becomes a regulated asset and the north west transmission line another $1 billion - these are costs that will be spread over decades. They will filter down to all Tasmanians and there will not be any difference in who pays for that. It is not a progressive tax. It will fall evenly on everyone in their power bills, from the poorest Tasmanians to the most wealthy. Many Tasmanians are struggling every single day in extreme circumstances. The idea of any increase in power bills would send many people into a state of serious anxiety. This is what it is about.

The House has called on the minister to provide the information because we know that he is making decisions behind closed doors. He has just told us that he cannot give us the real figures because he is in a procurement discussion. So, he is going ahead. Each of those decisions might be small at the time but they are adding up. We have $150 million that has already been spent in the budget on a combination of Marinus Link and the north west transmission. In the forward Estimates we have around $150 million for the Battery of the Nation, Tarraleah, and Project Marinus. These are things being committed to. The north west transmission is part of the Marinus, it is nested in there.

It is impossible for Tasmanians to get to the bottom of the true cost of this project and they should know. If the Government thinks it is such a great idea and it all stacks up, then just tell us. Let us have a look for ourselves. Hiding it from us makes people feel like something bad is happening and they have good reason to think that because this minister has been so slippery with the way he responds on information. He has been less than honest at every opportunity. So, we support the minister going to the privileges committee and having to fully account for his views.

We want to know about the fact that he is making decisions on these big financial issues on behalf of Tasmanians prior to a financial investment decision. The financial investment decision is not going to be made until the end of 2024. That is a long way down the track. A lot of money can be spent before then without Tasmanians, as he says in his ministerial statement, listening and understanding the whole of the state business case. This is what he has promised us in the ministerial statement: 'Do not worry, you will have plenty of time to talk about the business case. It will be completed and independently peer reviewed at least 30 days before a final investment decision is due and will be made publicly available'. When will it be made publicly available? After the decision, like everything else, by RTI?

The point is he is talking about that process happening in November next year. However, today we know he is off making decisions about cables and signing deals and making commitments and spending money - hundreds of millions of dollars that will be spent between now and then. That is inexorably walking us towards having a decision that we simply do not feel able to able to walk back from.

We have an example of a premier who has walked back from a bad decision and I make no comment about the right or wrong of his doing that, but Dan Andrews did show it is possible to say, 'Enough, this was a bad decision'.

Ms Archer - He let everyone down.

Dr WOODRUFF - I make no comment about that decision but it just goes to show that people really want ministers to be honest. They want premiers to let them know what the true costs are and the first responsibility of a minister of the Crown is honesty on such enormous issues. He is entrusted by Tasmanians in his role to make decisions and to tell us what is happening. It is not good enough to be the ultimate paternalist like minister Barnett, who just expects us to be fine with him making decisions behind closed doors. The Greens do not trust him. He has previously proven himself to be dishonest as a minister a number of times. We only have to look at the stuff that he did around Helilog Road. He is actually a law-breaker. That is why he does not have the portfolio -

Mr BARNETT - Point of order, Mr Speaker. I take offence. Please withdraw and apologise.

Dr WOODRUFF - I find it difficult - that was actually what happened in the Supreme Court so his decision did break the law.

Mr SPEAKER - Order. When a member takes personal offence and asks you to withdraw, you will do it without clarification.

Dr WOODRUFF - I withdraw the word 'law-breaker'. It is a fact that minister Barnett in his decision broke the law and that is probably why he lost the mining and resources portfolio. Why else would that have been the case, because he loved it so much? It was his favourite portfolio but clearly they could not have him going to the Supreme Court to give evidence. That would have been a bridge too far even for this Government to allow a minister to be investigated in court. It is not surprising that they took him out of the portfolio. We now have him in Energy and that is why we do not have a lot of faith in his word. We want to see things on paper and that is exactly what going to Privileges is about. It is so that parliament, who has the ultimate authority, can make a decision about whether this minister is doing right by Tasmanians.